Episode 71: Gospel Music & the Mission with Pastor Mike, Jr.
The face of gospel music is changing. (article taken from Rock City Media Group Press Release)
McClure, better known as Pastor Mike Jr. or simply PMJ, took home six Stellar Awards at this year’s 37th annual ceremony, including Album of the Year for I Got It: Singles Ministry Vol. 1 (Black Smoke Music Worldwide / Rock City Media Group). He is also the first gospel artist to earn the top Stellar Award, Artist of the Year, two years in a row. On October 28, 2022, Pastor Mike Jr. released an EP called Winning, a prelude to a full album scheduled to drop in January. “It’s been a surreal journey,” Pastor Mike Jr. said, “being able to accomplish all this during a pandemic.”
Born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1983, and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Pastor Mike Jr. comes from a family with deep roots in the Civil Rights Movement. His maternal grandfather is Bishop Calvin Woods, retired president of the Birmingham Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
“Dr. Martin Luther King wouldn’t move in Birmingham without calling my grandfather and my great uncle, Abraham Woods,” said Pastor Mike Jr. Indeed, the Reverend Abraham Woods Jr. and his brother, Bishop Calvin, led the 1963 lunch counter sit-in at Woolworth’s in Birmingham. Calvin was the first to be arrested at the sit-in. Later that year, Abraham helped Dr. King organize the March on Washington and stood behind him during his “I Have a Dream” speech.
It’s not surprising, considering this legacy of leadership, which also includes his father, Bishop Michael McClure Sr., pastor of Revelation Church Ministry in Ironwood, Alabama, that Pastor Mike Jr. never wanted to do anything else but be a pastor and create music. As a youngster, he travelled with his father and sang solos at revival services. After dutifully following his parents’ request that he study business at the University of West Alabama, Pastor Mike Jr. enrolled in Ashland Theological Seminary and studied at Yale Divinity School. From there, he led a successful youth ministry at Miles College, an HBCU near Birmingham.
When the youth ministry “exploded,” he said, it felt time to start a church. He founded Rock Church in Fairfield, just south of Birmingham. On Easter 2009, it had ten members, all from the Miles College youth ministry. By the following Easter, the congregation had grown to between 500 and 600. “God just kept blessing us and soon we had 5,000 members.” But because the church’s website was therockcity.org, people started referring to Rock Church as Rock City. The name stuck.
Gospel music on the horizon
Outside of singing here and there, Pastor Mike Jr. didn’t pursue music professionally until 2019, with the launch of “Big.” “I heard the Lord say, ‘For ten years love your city, love your church, love your family, and the world will come looking for you.’” In the meantime, the stress of full-time ministry led Pastor Mike Jr. to channel his anxiety into a purposeful hobby.
He set up a recording studio in his basement and began writing and recording songs never expecting anyone would ever hear them. The studio was his secret sanctuary, a chance to convert raw, unexpressed emotions into religious music. “The World Will Come Looking for You”
Sure enough, things started coming together musically at the ten-year mark, when gospel singer James Fortune appeared at the church’s ten-year anniversary program and unexpectedly brought his business manager, Kerry Douglas of Black Smoke Music Worldwide, into the Rock City galaxy.
Douglas would meet and propose marriage to one of Pastor Mike Jr.’s best volunteers. When the betrothed couple came to Pastor Mike Jr.’s home for marriage counseling, he escorted them downstairs for the session. The moment Douglas laid eyes on the recording studio, he was intrigued. Pastor Mike Jr. played “Big” and “I Got It” and Douglas signed him to his Black Smoke Music Worldwide label. The single “Big” hit radio first, and the album Live Free followed. All the songs came from Pastor Mike Jr.’s studio computer, all recorded right in his basement.
Gospel music during the pandemic
But then the pandemic hit. “The moment ‘Big’ hit number one, the world shut down,” Pastor Mike Jr. reflected, “so I didn’t have a chance to hear anybody sing the song.” What he was hearing were single persons asking him for prayer because they were anxious about quarantining alone. He returned to his studio and completed I Got It: Singles Ministry Vol. 1. “The worst person to be with sometimes is yourself,” he explained. “I wanted to do a project that would minister to everybody who was home alone. But Singles Ministry was for my church.
At that point, it still hadn’t hit me that I had a national career. In my head, it was still just me and my church.” That sense of isolation evaporated for Pastor Mike Jr. when Singles Ministry and the song “Amazing” together produced six Stellar Awards. He believes his music resonates with so many because of its authenticity.
“It’s life music. It’s music that touches their heart. I think people can tell when you’re being authentic. Being a pastor, one of the things I get is a chance to be authentic. In music, I get to preach in melody.”
Though a team of writers contributed to “Big,” Pastor Mike Jr. writes most of his songs. “The best songs I write are the ones that come out of the moment and we format later,” he said. For example, the seed that became “Big” was a viral video on which he was captured spontaneously singing “It’s gonna be big” during a worship service. “I Got It” sprouted from an inspirational moment during Bible study.
“Winning” was the result of a production mishap during Pastor Mike Jr.’s debut at Atlanta’s Praise in the Park. “The backing track went to a part that we weren’t prepared for,” he explained, “and I just started singing, ‘The devil already knows I’m winning.’ I came home and wrote the rest.”
“We were focused completely on the next album,” he said. “Didn’t see these six Stellar Awards coming. I was like, ‘Let’s celebrate, and the best way is with a small EP. Let’s call it Winning.’ It’s number one on iTunes, number one streaming. God keeps blowing our mind. It’s been a blessing to see the response.”
The EP contains songs that, like the title track, were birthed out of spontaneous worship. “Impossible,” featuring vocals from James Fortune, is from another Bible study moment. “I started singing, ‘You did the impossible – you did what no man could.’
I wrote that before ‘Big’ was big. It’s a song we’ve been singing at our church for years, but the Holy Spirit told me to hold onto it. I’ve been holding onto it for three years. Same with ‘Winning.’ I wrote it in 2019 but the Holy Spirit told me to hold onto it.”
Black sheep of gospel music
“Blk Sheep Freestyle” was inspired by something Pastor Mike Jr. said during the 36th Annual Stellar Awards, the first time he was named Artist of the Year. “I said I always felt like the black sheep of my family. My sister graduated at the top of her class. My brother was the first player in 30 years to get a full football scholarship to Florida State. And I was the guy always getting into trouble. When I said that, my inbox was flooded with people saying they felt the same way. So I turned the phrase “black sheep” into something positive—I’m different, I’m special, it means I’m anointed.”
He wrote “Look At Me Now” in his basement studio. “I had just preached about Peter saying, ‘Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have, I give unto thee’ [Acts 3]. I wanted to write a song that said your life can preach if you can be an example to those around you. Just look at me.”
“This Christmas, Just Jesus” was a first for Pastor Mike Jr. “The Gospel Music Association asked me to host the Dove Awards Christmas program,” he said, “and to sing a Christmas song on the program. I had never written a Christmas song. But I sat down at the computer and wrote it in like twelve minutes. Then I went straight to the studio, brought the team in, and it still blows my mind the way it turned out.”
Staying focused on the mission
Before the new album drops on the last Friday of January 2023, Pastor Mike Jr. and his wife will host the Stellar Awards Thanksgiving special. He also plans to tour with Fred Hammond. “I thank God for the music,” he said, “and I appreciate the awards—they give you more influence—but it’s just a tool to inspire more people and to help those around me.
Now my music director can work with artists he’s always dreamed of working with. My singer Amanda got a chance to attend the BMI Awards because she helped write ‘I Got It.’ Awards open doors for the people around you, and that’s a blessing.”
Besides getting the album ready, Pastor Mike Jr. is excited to meet his church’s goal of saving 3,000 souls. “We’re only about 300 away,” he said.